Unicorn to ride Falcon into space

(l to r:) Chris Sembroski ’97, Dr. Sian Proctor, Jared Isaacman, and Hayley Arceneaux take a photo break during fighter jet training in Bozeman, Montana. (All photos credit: Inspiration4 / John Kraus)

On Sept. 15, Chris Sembroski ’97 will become the second NCSSM graduate to reach space (Christina Hammock Koch ’97 was the first) when he rockets into orbit from the launchpad at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Along with three others, Sembroski will ride inside the SpaceX Resilience capsule secured atop a Falcon 9 Block 5 launch vehicle. The flight will be the first human spaceflight to orbit Earth with an all-civilian crew.

With the clock winding down to launch during his final week of preparations, Sembroski found a few minutes to generously answer a few of our questions.

Q: We’ve read elsewhere that while at NCSSM, you used to climb onto a roof of one of the buildings and watch the night sky. What building was that? Where did your mind go as you stared up at the sky?

A: I believe it was Bryan Hall where we used to do night sky observations. Just above the fourth floor of the Physics Department, a couple of other students and I would haul some of the large telescopes up the back stairwell to the flat roof. If it was dark enough and the haze wasn’t too prominent, a couple dozen of us would share high-powered binoculars trying to find clusters and nebulas using star maps and constellations as guides. With just a little bit of magnification and some guidance on where to look, the smattering of stars strewn across the sky became a treasure trove of new things to discover. Were we going to discover a new comet? What orientation was Saturn going to present its rings? What was it like to be Galileo staring up at these four brightest moons of Jupiter for the first time? For those of us in Astrophysics, the idea that some stars may be a slightly different color based on their velocity relative to earth and that there was the potential to calculate that speed due to the amount of red shift/blue shift was fascinating. It left me wondering what other small details would we be able to pull from these observations that would help expand our awareness of the universe around us.

Q: Was there a particular teacher at NCSSM who inspired you or supported you in your interest in space?

A: There were a number of teachers at NCSSM that pushed me along and encouraged my curiosity. These teachers demanded the best and would settle for nothing less; this usually meant they were tough, while simultaneously inspiring. I remember having classes with Dr. [John] Kolena as he taught me Physics, Modern Physics, and Astrophysics. While he managed to teach us all a bit of humility, those classes directly influenced my love of science and aerospace. However, ever since I graduated, I came to appreciate how history, the transfer of ideas, and connecting and recognizing the humanity in others were equally as powerful in discovering new ideas to solve old problems as well as implementing and establishing innovative solutions. Much of that was influenced in American History with Dr. [Virginia] Wilson and in W.R.R.D. (Wisdom, Reason, Revelation, and Doubt) with Ms. [Elizabeth] Moose. 

Q: Did you ever really think you would one day be a space traveler?

A: When it comes to traveling into space, I love meeting other astronauts and hearing about their experiences. However, I always found myself in a role that would enable others to take center stage while I did everything I could to help make the mission successful. It was not in my plan to apply to be an astronaut, and before this mission, I never thought any but a small, select few would have the dedication, qualifications, and luck needed to be counted as those allowed to fly among the stars. My hope is that with Inspiration4, companies like SpaceX, and courageous people at NASA, we will see space open up to humanity as it has never before.

Q: We all “prepare” ourselves for things: trips to the beach, a run to the grocery store, a big meeting at work, the evening commute home in heavy traffic and driving rain. How, though, do you prepare yourself for something like blasting off into space on the tip end of a rocket?

A: Preparing for this mission involved lots of studying and plenty of PowerPoint slides! There were dozens of simulations, some integrated with Mission Control, and many practice runs through contingency procedures in the low likelihood that any emergency situation arises. Additionally, we had to come together as a team in a short time, and so to do that we climbed Mt. Rainier to get comfortable being uncomfortable, experienced a Zero-G flight to get our first glimpse at weightlessness, and flew in fighter jets over Montana to be familiar with operating in a dynamic environment. 

Mentally, it’s important to be present in the moment. To me it is similar to preparing to play a concert in a big symphony hall or walking onto a field getting ready to compete in a championship game. All the studying, training, and practice come beforehand, and then it becomes a matter of being very focused knowing that the team is counting on you to perform. 

Q: Your trip into space is scheduled to last three days. What will you do while you are away?

A: Once we are in space, we will be conducting several medical experiments, which will help us expand our understanding of what space travel does to the human body. But additionally, we are going to be making art, talking to St. Jude patients, and experiencing Earth through the largest window to have ever flown in space.

Q: Do you think you’ll be the same person when you return as you were when you left?

A: I sincerely hope that I am changed for the better by this experience. There will always be family to come home to, and my life in Everett, WA. But through this entire year, I’ve learned that we are all connected more closely than we could ever imagine. I am expecting that this trip in orbit will serve to strengthen that notion.

Q: Finally, what does this mean to you? Big picture, how do you think you will you see this when you look back on your life years from now?

A: When I look back years from now, I am optimistic that this flight will represent a symbolic moment in space history when trips beyond earth’s atmosphere began to open up for all of us. Like Jared [Isaacman, flight commander] has said many times this year, humanity is much more interesting when people can travel among the stars. But for me, this mission has given me the opportunity to reach beyond what is immediately in front of me. It has allowed me the chance to dream bigger, to remove those limitations of what just seems practical, and trade in those ideas for what could be possible if the goal is set high enough. Additionally, I hope our goal of raising $200 million for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital is surpassed as we attempt to aid them in their goal of eliminating childhood cancer around the world.

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